20′ long construct typically used to guard tombs or temples. Attacks only when trigger condition is met (e.g., someone tries to take the treasure, someone passes a certain point). At rest it is either a toppled column or a standing one in an architecturally appropriate place.
Armor Class 4  Hit Dice 14* (63hp) Attacks 1 × head bash (3d8 + constriction) THAC0 9 [+10] Movement 60’ (20’) Saving Throws D8 W9 P10 B10 S12 (7) Morale 12 Alignment Neutral XP 2300 Number Appearing 1d2 Treasure Type None
- Mundane damage immunity: Can only be harmed by magical attacks.
- Immunity: Unharmed by gas; unaffected by charm, hold, and sleep spells.
- Energy immunity: Unharmed by fire, cold, and electricity.
- Hypnotize: As alternative to attack, may sway rhythmically to render immobile and unable to speak or act up to 20 HD of creatures. Subjects get saving throw vs spell. Subjects who fail a saving throw recover two rounds after the swaying ceases.
- Constriction: When a head bash attack is successful, the python wraps around the victim and begins to squeeze, inflicting 2d8 automatic damage immediately and on each subsequent round. Only one victim may be constricted at a time, though may head bash others.
- Camouflage: Difficult to detect if encountered in an area with the appropriate architecture.
Inspired by Xu Zhen’s sculpture “Hello.” Author’s photo, I’m OK with you using my photo of it but no idea if Xu or Stanford University have rights to my photo of their sculpture.
More Gygax’s Finches
In a previous Gygaxian naturalism post I gave some thoughts on D&D implications of allopatric speciation. This is what people usually have in mind with evolution, where two populations are physically separated and so diverge genetically, especially if the two environments differ. For instance, a storm blows finches from the mainland to an island which both has a different climate than the mainland and presents a barrier to gene flow.
A more unusual form of evolution is sympatric speciation and its companion of disruptive selection. Sympatric speciation occurs when there is divergence despite no geographic barrier to gene flow. Disruptive selection is when selection promotes extreme forms and weeds out intermediate forms. The two are connected since disruptive selection is one way sympatric speciation can work.
As with last time, let us consider the orc, but this time by contrasting them to goblins. Orcs and goblins are both nocturnal humanoids. They both live in dungeons. And WotC era D&D lore notwithstanding, we can assume they have a common ancestor. If orcs and goblins were to develop into different species via allopatric speciation, they’d have to be geographically separated but that doesn’t fit with them having the same geographical range (i.e., they appear on the same random encounter tables). So we need a sympatric speciation explanation and that means disruptive selection.
For disruptive selection to work, we need to see less survival and/or reproductive success for intermediate forms. So really this means big orcs and small goblins should survive and have lots of babies but medium goblin-orcs should die young and/or be last asked for a dance at the dungeon winter formal. Let’s suppose that for the goblin and orc population that fitness basically reduces down to martial prowess. The more dwarf and elf skulls males collect, the younger they marry and more extramarital pairings they attract. So why would you be a badass as a 4′ tall goblin or a 6′ tall orc but not as a 5′ tall intermediate form?
This comes down to different tactics. A 6′ tall orc will make great heavy infantry, fighting via brute strength. A 4′ tall goblin can serve either as a wolf jockey or as a hit and run tunnel ambush fighter. But a 5′ tall compromise between an orc and a goblin either ends up getting mauled by his own wolf, annoyed by a painfully oversized rider, or ditched by the heavy infantry unit, annoyed at the runt barely able to lift the sword. Over time this will lead to a bimodal distribution in size rather than the usual normal distribution and we will effectively have two species, or at least subspecies. Since humanoids aren’t just brutes but have culture, you may even see cultural norms and institutions develop that discourage cross-breeding between goblin women and orc men (or vice versa) as it is likely to result in pathetic 5′ tall goblin-orcs who will sire no grand-imps.
Once we have this logic, we can extend it to see why there would not only be a distinction between wolf-riding goblins and shock troop orcs but also trap-setting kobolds and hyena-whisperer gnolls. Or for that matter why the bestiary has an entry for a black pudding and another for a gelatinous cube but not one for a translucent aspic.
As I’m guessing was true for many of you, my first introduction to probability theory was pages 9-10 of the AD&D DMG in which Gygax explains how rolling one die (including d100) gives you a uniform distribution but summing multiple dice gives you a bell curve. Ever since, it has been a basic principal of game design to distinguish between when a uniform distribution is desirable (e.g., action resolution) and when a bell curve is better (e.g., character abilities). Appreciation of uniform distributions (each value is equally likely) vs bell curves (moderate values are most likely) is all well and good but in probability and statistics there is a third major type of distribution that RPGS usually ignore: right-skewed distributions (low values are most likely). Note that in statistics “skew” means the direction the “tail” of the distribution is pointing. So on a right-skewed distribution, most cases are low (left) and it’s rare to have cases that are high (right).
There are a lot of things in life and even in fantasy worlds where low numbers are the most common values. The typical scroll should be low level, the typical orc war party should be small, etc. Alas, we generally don’t model this. I had this thought while reading Shadowdark and seeing the rules for generating rival adventuring parties. When it comes to level, you simply roll d6. I thought, huh, that’s weird, shouldn’t 1st and 2nd level parties be more common than 5th and 6th level parties?
I thought about it all day and came up with some pretty complicated mechanics and then realized there’s an incredibly simple approach.
Choose a die size that captures the range you want. Roll multiple dice and keep the lowest. The more dice you roll, the more right skewed the probability distribution will be.
For instance, suppose we wanted to roll for character level of rival adventuring parties and we wanted the range to be 1-6 with low values being more common. We could roll 2d6 and keep low and then we’d have the following probabilities for rolling different party levels:
- 1st — 30.6%
- 2nd — 25.0%
- 3rd — 19.4%
- 4th — 13.9%
- 5th — 8.3%
- 6th — 2.8%
If you want even more skew, roll 3d6 and keep lowest. That gives the following probabilities:
- 1st — 42.1%
- 2nd — 28.2%
- 3rd — 17.1%
- 4th — 8.8%
- 5th — 3.2%
- 6th — 0.4%
And of course you don’t just have to do it for d6. Let’s say you wanted to roll for the spell level on a scroll found in a treasure hoard, using the AD&D range of spell levels 1-9. We could roll d10 (where “10” is two spells or something else special). If we’re relatively deep in the dungeon we could roll 2d10 and keep lowest, which gives these probabilities: 1 (19%), 2 (17%), 3 (15%), 4 (13%), 5 (11%), 6 (9%), 7 (7%), 8 (5%), 9 (3%), 10 (1%). And if we’re relatively shallow in the dungeon we could roll 3d10 for these probabilities: 1 (27%), 2 (22%), 3 (17%), 4 (13%), 5 (9%), 6 (6%), 7 (4%), 8 (2%), 9 (0.7%), 10 (0.1%).
Or if we’re rolling for orc wilderness encounter size, maybe 2d100 keep low if it’s orc territory and 3d100 keep lowest if it’s far from orc territory. The probability function for 2d100 keep low gives a pretty linear decay and that for 3d100 keep lowest looks like this.
You don’t need to calculate or simulate the probabilities as long as you understand that adding more dice increases the right skew (that is, it makes low values especially common). However game designers might like to calculate the probabilities so if that’s you, here is my R code.
diesize <- 100 die1 <- seq(1:diesize) die2 <- die1 die3 <- die1 df.dice <- expand.grid(die1,die2,die3) df.dice <- df.d10s %>% mutate(low.2=if_else(Var1<Var2,Var1,Var2), low.3=if_else(low.2<Var3,low.2,Var3)) table(df.dice$low.2) %>% proportions() table(df.dice$low.3) %>% proportions() hist(df.dice$low.2) hist(df.dice$low.3)
Roll 2d# or 3d# and keep low is the best way I can figure for playing at the table, but here are a few alternatives I thought of or noticed for creating right skew.
The most obvious approach is to generate a table where uniform distribution dice map onto right skewed values. For instance, the B/X treasure table does this for scrolls. In Moldvay Basic, if you find a scroll, roll d6 and 1-3 it’s level one, 4-5 level two, and 6 level three. Similarly in Cook Expert, roll d100 and 1-25 is level 1, 26-50 level two, 51-70 level three, 71-85 level four, 86-95 level five, and 96-100 level six. The problem with this approach is you could easily fill half a DM screen with all the tables that would be necessary.
You can also use a software random number generator. I experimented with using the function
rpois()in R. There are a few problems with this. The obvious one is most people don’t game with R or Excel in front of them. Another is that the parameter for a Poisson is the population mean, which is a less intuitive concept than the range. A third is that a Poisson has a very specific shape which is a function of the mean in non-intuitive ways. There are more flexible functions, but they’re more complicated to work with. Using a Poisson or binomial pseudo-random number generator would be the way to go for programming a computer game, but it’s a non-starter for tabletop play.
Another approach would be to generate a bell curve and then take the absolute value of the difference from the central value. For instance, on 2d6, the central value is 7. This means rolling a seven gives 0, rolling either 6 or 8 gives 1, rolling either 5 or 9 gives 2, etc. This approach isn’t appealing as it requires a lot of arithmetic.
Knave uses 3d6 for character generation but instead of summing the dice, the pips tell you which attribute gets the mod. So most attributes will have a mod of zero and a few will have a mod between 1 and 3, usually 1. A closely related approach would be to create a geometric distribution by flipping a coin (including a biased “coin” like a d6 where values 3-6 are “heads” thereby giving 2:1 odds of “heads”) and counting how many “heads” you get before your first “tails.” The downside of this is it would take forever.
Probably the most popular right-skewed approach in use today is exploding dice (if you roll the max, roll again and add the new roll). This has the advantage that it’s very simple and also can be exciting in play, especially for damage. The disadvantage is it gives a weird step function distribution that’s uniform, then skips a digit, then is uniform again at a lower level. Also, when player-facing it creates a min-maxing puzzle of whether smaller dice are better since they’re more likely to explode.
As a Kickstarter backer for Shadowdark I have read the PDF and my bottom line is it’s a really great game that skillfully synthesizes many different ideas and mechanics. If you were turned off by the hype, don’t be. I see it as a really well executed effort for what it intends to accomplish. I suggest you consider if you’re in the market for that type of game, and if so check out the free quickstart guide. My own feeling is that in some ways it is what I’d been waiting for, but explaining why requires a digression.
I originally started playing with Mentzer Basic and AD&D, then took a few decades off, and then got back into D&D as a player in a 5e campaign (but which had an OSR sensibility). My initial reaction to 5e was “wow, they fixed D&D.” A lot of OSR people will tell you descending armor class is familiar but even back in the 1980s I thought “this is backwards.” I know now some of those changes are things 5e inherited from 3e, but I was coming to 5e straight from AD&D and so I was thinking of it as fixing confusing and inconsistent mechanics problems with AD&D not dialing back some of the crunch that was introduced by 3e.
Over time, I came to sour on 5e as it suffered from late edition player option bloat and came to be dominated by a YA style culture and got interested in the OSR as an escape from both the “optimal build” and “orcs are racist” mentalities. I read over half a dozen OSR rules sets, being especially excited to read Five Torches Deep as I still basically liked the 5e core mechanics and so FTD seemed promising. My notes on FTD appreciate that it inherits key 5e mechanics like d20 resolution, single XP scale, and ascending AC as well as several improvements on 5e like eliminating darkvision, abstracting weapon damage to be about one vs two-handed and martial vs. simple, and a “supply” mechanic reminiscent of “preparedness” in Gumshoe. So given that there’s a lot to like in Five Torches Deep why don’t I play it? Well, here is the last paragraph of my notes:
[FTD is] not so much a game that grafts the best OSR ideas onto 5e as a set of notes on how to do so. As written, all by itself, it is unplayable. You need the 5e PHB (not a big deal) and a lot of work to adapt it. For instance, if you play a warrior with the ranger archetype, you can choose a feat of “adv to track or hunt.” What are the rules for tracking? A wisdom roll? FTD doesn’t tell us so the DM needs to make it up or look it up in 5e PHB. Another example, there are references to healer’s kit as an inventory item but what does it do? There are a lot of cases like this. A bit like how OD&D didn’t make sense unless you were an experienced wargamer, FTD won’t make sense unless you are an experienced 5e player. This is especially disappointing as there’s a 5e SRD so there’s no legal reason FTD couldn’t be written to be playable. I’d say it’s laziness but it has great layout and art so they obviously weren’t lazy. I suspect they prioritized making it short and sweet. Inshallah there will someday be Moldvay or Holmes edition of FTD that actually makes sense. On that day I suspect it will be my top pick for OSR, or even F20 in general.
With the publication of Shadowdark we finally have what I was hoping FTD would be: a game that blends the core mechanics of 5e with the sensibility and best mechanics of the OSR.
As everyone knows, Shadowdark is an OSR version of 5e. This is true insofar as Shadowdark uses d20 and advantage/disadvantage, thief skills integrated with ability checks, and long rest for HP recovery. What “Shadowdark is OSR 5e” misses is that the game borrows ideas widely and in many ways is a greatest hits mélange of modern game design.
- The magic system is not Vancian but a Dungeon Crawl Classics style roll-to-cast with mishaps system. This goes some way to addressing the “linear fighter vs. exponential wizard” problem since wizards can cast multiple times at first level but when a wizard gets to high level they find their high level spells are hard to cast successfully. Also from DCC there is an optional level 0 funnel.
- Index Card RPG is the source of various mechanics, including abstracting distance to close/near/far.
- There is slot-based encumbrance as pioneered by Lamentations of the Flame Princess.
- The hexcrawl rules are similar to those of Swords & Wizardry, which pleased me since B/X hexcrawl rules are overly generous.
- Like many Gumshoe system games, there are “modes” for adjusting play to be harder, easier, or just emulate a different subgenre.
- From Jeff Rients’s blog there is a carousing XP mechanic.
- Finally, like Tome of Adventure Design or the Crawford Without Number games there are lots of tables. Indeed, the random encounter tables are not the B/X standard of [creature name] and then you check the entry in the bestiary and see to expect 2d4 x 10 of [creature name]. Rather the random encounter tables (which include not only different biomes but also different types of urban neighborhoods) are more like hooks. For instance, here are a few entries from the swamp encounter table “a headless scarecrow stands on a rock holding a lit lantern,” “Sir Augrim, a knight, is stuck up to his neck in quicksand,” “a group of rival [adventurers] prods at a half-sunken menhir.”
I want to be clear that I am not knocking Shadowdark as “unoriginal.” Rather I appreciate that Kelsey Dionne has great taste and has skillfully curated, synthesized, and in many cases improved a lot of game elements. Even if you could do this yourself, there is value in being able to tell people beyond your regular group (eg, at a con or an open table) “I am running Shadowdark” rather than “I am running an OSR game with a lot of cool house rules, see the PDF on my Google Drive for the complete list of them.”
There are also a lot of original elements (or at least ones where I didn’t recognize the source). The famous one as alluded to in the title is that light is a big deal. No PC races have darkvision (which eliminates the incentive for a Star Wars cantina party) and torches are relatively bulky. And torch duration is based on real time rather than in-universe time. I’m not sure how I feel about that but it is intended to incentivize rapid decision-making.
A less discussed but very smart game design choice is the level advancement system. Aside from hit dice and known spells, PCs do not gain any particular class abilities when they level. PCs don’t even gain a to-hit bonus as they level. Rather, on odd-numbered levels the PC rolls on a class-specific 2d6 bell curve “talents” table. The result might be a “to hit” bonus or an ability score improvement, but it could also be “gain weapon mastery with one additional weapon type” or “gain advantage on casting one spell you know” (remember, it’s DCC style roll to cast). This system is a bit like feats in that it makes each fighter, each thief, etc. unique but it avoids the choice paralysis / system mastery problem of feats in that there aren’t many of them, they’re all simple, and the choice is randomized.
Some more scattered thoughts:
- The GM screen is mostly an NPC fluff generator which is, ahem, certainly a choice. I don’t recommend buying it unless you do a ton of social pillar. The stuff you would usually consider DM screen material is on the inside front and back cover pages (like Lamentations). I suggest printing these pages out for easy reference.
- There is great B&W art in various styles. The “ten-eyed oracle” (beholder) on the cover is metal af and the art generally sets a sword & sorcery tone but some of the art is a bit cartoony (as was also true of AD&D DMG).
- There is a standard magic item list but also a creative system for generating magic items with options for the “blessing + curse” approach.
- I watched a (recorded) livestream of Kelsey Dionne, the designer, as she designed the optional ranger class for that game. She’s extremely likeable with a very strong knowledge of D&D history, an OSR sensibility, and a strong sense of game design. I can see why all the big personalities were so happy to hype her Kickstarter.
- There are no rules for hirelings, retainers, or henchmen.
- Many spells have no savings throws, especially the artillery style evocation spells. Some spells get a save by an ability check. Turn undead is a contested roll modified by the caster’s WIS and the undead’s CHA mods. In effect this makes turn undead less level-dependent and more effective at low levels.
- XP is based on treasure but it’s abstracted, not strict GP=XP. A corollary is this allows treasure to be considerably more stingy/realistic than the inflated expectations of most old school D&D. I like the Shadowdark approach but it requires adapting treasure given in modules written for S&W, OSE, or OSRIC.
The dungeon is a strange environment. And I don’t mean that just in the mythic underworld sense, but in the sense of Gygaxian naturalism. One of the basic issues is where do the monsters come from? For undead and demons and such the answer is basically “magic,” which settles the issue. Often these undead or demons or elementals or constructs were “stocked” by a necromancer or summoner who may or may not himself remain in the dungeon as the final boss lich. Similarly, we can imagine a mad wizard sending some lackeys to pick up an order for roper spores, stirge eggs, and a gelatinous cube starter culture at ye olde home and garden center. Of course the entire conceit of a mad wizard funhouse dungeon is don’t ask how it works, did I mention the wizard was insane, Bob’s your uncle. Let’s put such deliberately stocked dungeons aside and engage in the Gygaxian naturalism of thinking through how monsters might naturally occupy the ecological niche of the dungeon in the same way as we explain how the common raven came to occupy most of the northern hemisphere or the California mussel cling to every other salt-sprayed boulder from Alaska to Baja.
First, let us consider the simple case of monsters that are found in both dungeons and the wilderness. For instance, the orc is found on low-level dungeon tables and almost every wilderness random encounter table in OSE, Swords & Wizardry, and OSRIC. For a monster like orcs, it’s easy to explain how they got to a particular dungeon: they occupy lots of ecological niches and so even if two dungeons are separated by forest, or hills, or mountains, or first forest, then hills, then mountains; no problem, orcs inhabit all those places. Orcs are what biologists call generalists and it’s pretty easy to explain how generalists spread from place to place which is why some generalists (e.g., the common raven, the brown rat, people) have an enormous range. Generalist monsters like orcs that are found frequently above and below the surface might even form a single breeding population, but maybe not.
For instance, the orcs of the Misty Mountains at some point migrated from Mordor, crossing Rohan on the way. Or maybe vice versa, I don’t care enough about the canonical answer to read Encyclopedia of Arda, let alone the RotK appendices and the Silmarillion. The point is you can imagine orcs in Middle Earth having spread much the same way as human beings here on Earth. Human beings and zebras both evolved in an African grassland environment but we eventually reached the grasslands of South America and the zebras didn’t because we could also occupy the many diverse ecosystems between Kenya and Argentina. Once orcs are spread out enough over a wide enough range, you might get linguistic / ethnic / cultural differences among orcs in different areas, just as human beings show a lot of diversity, but how the orcs got there is not tricky.
The much harder problem is what about monsters that only live in the dungeon. The carrion crawler, gelatinous cube, rust monster, purple worm, cloaker, cave fisher, drow, duergar, and svirfneblin are all what biologists call specialists. One thing about specialists in real life is they tend to have limited range because even if there is another cozy dungeon a hundred miles away, you can’t get here from there. So a cave fisher in Temple of Elemental Evil might do very well by its offspring to lay its eggs in The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, but it is so hyper-evolved to live in a dungeon that it has no way to leave a dungeon in the Yatil Mountains, cross a few hundred miles of farms and forest, and settle in to another dungeon on the far side of Veluna.
There are a few solutions to this. One might be that maybe the monsters aren’t really limited to the dungeon ecosystem but go into other ecosystems. Drow settlers could travel overland by night seeking new dungeons to colonize. For more bestial monsters, they might spend some life stages in the dungeon and others out of it, with their non-dungeon life stage being harmless, which is why they don’t show up on the encounter tables. Harmless cloaker smolts could fly out of the dungeon and feed on insects only to return to the dungeon to reach sexual maturity and the phase of life where they have 6HD and feed on adventurers in preparation to spawn. But if you see a cloaker smolt the size of a handkerchief feeding on a grasshopper, you know the dungeon can’t be more than a few dozen miles away.
Mostly though the specialists will have a very limited range, perhaps even just a single dungeon. One dungeon might see the scavenger ecological niche filled by the gelatinous cube, but in another dungeon that job is performed by the carrion crawler. A more mechanically easy solution would be that several species might share a distant common ancestor but have diverged, at least in fluff if not in core mechanics. An example on earth would be ratites (long-legged flightless birds) which have been diverging for a very long time but an ostrich, an emu, and a cassowary still have a family resemblance to the extent that if you had to stat them out you could use the same stat blocks but might want to dry brush the minis a different color. In D&D, you can imagine lots of dungeons would have carrion crawlers, but they’d be superficially different in ways that might fascinate a sage specializing in entomology. And then there’d be the one weird dungeon where the carcass crawlers are the size of cats and have odd behavior, just as New Zealand has the kiwi, an unusually tiny and unusually nocturnal ratite.
This has a gaming implication in that once players get used to this Gygaxian naturalism conceit, if the players recognize that the monsters in this dungeon are the same breed as the last dungeon, they can infer that either the dungeons are connected or someone deliberately stocked one or both of the dungeons. “The carrion crawlers below the amphibian shrine have purple antennae and an iridescent pseudo-phallus, just like the ones roaming the mines of the abandoned dwarf city a few miles away, so at some point the two dungeons must connect.” An extreme version of this would be that any dungeon that has standard breeds of standard monsters is presumably somehow connected to The Underdark whereas anything that either lacks the standard dungeon specialist monsters or only has unusual breeds of them must be an isolated dungeon.
If you guys like this, next time I’ll do Gygaxian naturalism of sympatric speciation.
OGL 1.2 reactions
The following is my entry for the main free entry text block at the beginning of the OGL 1.2 “playtest” survey. As such, the second person “you” is WotC. Note that one function of the “playtest” is to kill the momentum of backlash to WotC. If we all publicly post our feedback, that will keep the issue salient, which it needs to remain since I am highly skeptical they’ll get the survey results and say “the people have spoken, we are reissuing the OGL 1.0a and adding the word ‘irrevocable.”
Good: Creative Commons for abstract game mechanics. You couldn’t copyright that stuff anyway, but it is good to make it clear that you agree and remove any uncertainty about creators having to defend against frivolous litigation over mechanics.
Good: Clarifies that material published under 1.0a does not need to be pulped. You probably have to concede this under contract law but, again, it’s good to see you agree and remove any uncertainty.
Good: No royalties, reporting, etc
Bad: OGL 1.2 deauthorizes the OGL 1.0a for SRDs already released under it. This is a breach of trust with the community and contradicts the universally understood intent of OGL 1.0a. If you want to only release OpenDND under a restrictive license like OGL 1.2 or GSL, that is your right, but no backsies on SRD 3.5 or SRD 5.1 (and also, no damage to various 3rd party SRDs unrelated to D&D but using OGL 1.0a).
Bad: the joint and class action clause will make it hard for the community to defend its rights if you act in bad faith
Bad: the severability clause gives you the right to unilaterally revise the OGL any time you lose a case.
Bad: The morals clause. For the community, the discretionary power claimed in the clause would only work given trust, which has been broken by the OGL fiasco. It is also a bad idea for Wizards as it will draw you in to adjudicating every culture wars dispute involving third party content, with the result that everyone on the losing side of a dispute will blame you. Think about the Spelljammer fiasco, do you want that every month for third party splatbooks? A morals clause would be essential for branded content hosted on DM’s Guild, but for OGL content, you want Schelling’s credible commitment to be able to say “sorry, that’s not up to us, under the OGL we don’t have the power to do anything about that.”
Bad: In the blog post that promised 1.2, you stated podcasts are allowed under fan content. However fan content only protects free podcasts and so neither fan content nor OGL 1.2 explicitly protect content like Patreon subscriber only episodes. Such episodes are probably legal under fair use, but the license should remove uncertainty on the matter. If I were creating actual plays for a living, I would be scared about getting sued for reading the occasional passage from PHB.
Overall this draft is an improvement over the leaked version but is still unacceptable.
Like all of us, I’ve been paying close attention to the OGL revisions. I am not a lawyer, intellectual property or otherwise, but I have studied media industries, and so have some thoughts on all this. I see three basic questions:
- What rights could you defend in court?
- How likely are you to have to defend those rights?
- How will the community and industry respond?
Let’s take them in turn.
What rights could you defend in court?
Note that I did not say what rights do you have. I don’t think that is a particularly relevant question since rights are not self-enforcing. A lot of people have been saying things along the lines of “you never needed the OGL because you can’t copyright game mechanics.” This may be true. Or it may be like sovereign citizens saying you don’t have to pay income tax because the 16th amendment wasn’t printed in the right color of ink or something. But the thing is, even if it is true that the OGL is superfluous because you can’t copyright game mechanics, it’s not true in any way that counts until you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees proving that it’s true. If you look prior to the OGL at the history of TSR litigation, it sure looks like people got sued over game mechanics. And if you don’t have the money and nothing better to spend it on than defending yourself in court, then for practical purposes it’s not true that you can’t copyright mechanics. The OGL was always just as important as a promise that Wizards would agree you had a right to use d20 mechanics, the magic missile spell description, and the owlbear stat block as it was as the actual allocation of rights to these concepts.
Here are my hunches:
- Wizards’ position that they can void the OGL 1.0 because what was “authorized” can be deauthorized is shaky, especially given all the evidence from old ancillary material that when they created it two decades ago, they intended it to be irrevocable.
- An abstract mechanic like “roll a twenty side die, add the attacker’s bonuses, and compare to the target’s defense score” can be used by anyone, with or without an OGL. This is especially true if you rename the mechanic as, for instance, the Kevin Crawford “without number” games have renamed “feats” to “foci.”
- A much more specific aspect of the game like there is a spell called “cone of cold” and it is a 5th level spell for wizards / magic users could be Wizards’ IP unless they allocate it via an OGL or other license.
So basically, I think the community is on strong ground to assert the OGL 1.0a can’t be revoked but weak ground to argue they never needed the OGL in the first place, at least for games that are basically the same as D&D 3e like Pathfinder. Those are my hunches. What I know is that my hunches and folk wisdom are just hunches and folk wisdom, and so are yours. As The Alexandrian suggests in his excellent thoughts on this matter, talk to a lawyer. If you happen to be an IP lawyer yourself, then you probably have a better idea than I do of what would win out in court, but ultimately there’s no telling until it goes to trial and appeal, which means a lot of time and money.
But presumably you don’t have a lot of time and money, which means what rights you could defend in court are less relevant than …
How likely are you to have to defend those rights?
How likely are you to have to actively defend your rights is really a question of what is Wizards likely to sue you over.
The main reason Wizards would sue you is if you threaten their business model. A general trend in entertainment and software is a shift from selling products to selling subscriptions. It’s all about recurring payments. That’s why Microsoft now sells you a 365 subscription instead of a copy of MS Office and it’s why the movie studios are so aggressive about streaming (or at least they were until interest rates shot up). It’s all about that $100 a year or $10/month. The closest that RPGs traditionally get to this is you sell the corebook and then you sell supplements. And since there are more players than GMs, ideally you sell player-facing supplements which is why every year since 2017, Wizards has published a D&D 5e book with a title like Bigby’s Self-Pleasuring Fist that provides rules for playing as a gelatinous cube who is a college of the flatulist bard. But while everyone bought the corebooks, eventually half the players shrug at picking up Robilar’s Grimoire of Miscellany and only a few GMs buy the latest sensitivity-reader all stars anthology of ADA-compliant dungeons. And besides, the books are only $50 retail and $25 on Amazon so even selling one a year per player starts to feel like inviting a shareholder lawsuit against management for under-monetizing the brand.
How much better if you could charge a recurring payment to every player for access to a virtual table top. Tabletop role-playing games as a service, the El Dorado of the gaming industry, awaits Hasbro shareholders. But only if they don’t face competition from rival VTT services that can undercut them on price while still building in tools that support the 5e ruleset which, let’s face it, is nearly identical to the One D&D rules. So if you’re running a VTT that supports the rules set, I think you are nearly certain to be sued. Likewise, I would not bet the farm investing in another Solasta game.
In contrast, if you’re a medium sized publisher, say one who falls above the $50,000 reporting threshold but below the $750,000 royalty threshold, you’re not nearly as much of a threat to this model and so you’re probably less likely to get sued than a VTT operator. But less likely to get sued is not the same thing as certainty against being sued, as it was when you could use OGL 1.0a and that uncertainty matters a lot. Uncertainty is one thing if you’re planning on putting a hundred hours or so of work and maybe a couple hundred dollars in art commissions into something and releasing it either for free or for beer money. In that situation it is very likely that the scope of outcomes ranges from “they leave you alone” to “they send you a cease and desist letter.” That uncertainty is quite another thing if you’re investing your savings or staking full-time or substantial part-time labor into something. Devoting a year of your labor and investing $10,000 of your savings into a heartbreaker was probably never a great idea but it’s an especially bad idea without the protection of a favorable OGL. And investing substantial capital into a VTT is like building a house on land where someone might contest the title. Even if the claim is frivolous, that’s an expensive headache. All this is to say that even if the OGL 1.0a will ultimately be vindicated, Wizards suggesting that it is no longer authorized introduces uncertainty and uncertainty is poison to investment. Which implies the question …
How will the community and industry respond?
This is really two issues, who is likely to fight it and what will people do in the meantime.
Most people simply don’t have the resources to fight for the OGL 1.0a in court, but some do. Maybe Paizo will decide that a 25% royalty on Starfinder is too exorbitant and they don’t want to lose the right to license another video game or a VTT or maybe even making a Netflix series. Maybe Kobold Press decides to fight it out. Maybe Microsoft will buy Solasta and sue to keep it under the old OGL. Maybe Disney will decide it wants to relaunch Knights of the Old republic. (BTW, if Wizards is smart, they’ll negotiate low royalties with these big actors to keep that from happening). In any case, it’s likely to go to court, which will take a few years and a lot of money and likely turn on the meaning of the word “authorized.” If Wizards wins, you can expect an appeal which will include amica curiae from major corporations who rely on open source software like Samsung, Sony, and IBM since open source software would lose all stability of expectations if Wizards can retcon the OGL of D&D 3.5e out of existence.
But like I said, that will take a lot of time and money. In the meantime, what do you play and what do you publish?
Some people, mostly at the beer money tier, will want access to the core D&D normie audience and “product identity” stuff like the Forgotten Realms. I imagine these people will adopt the OGL 1.1 and post to Wizards’ preferred digital marketplace, just as today this same group of people post to DM’s Guild. This is a much tougher quandary for companies whose business is focused on 5e compatible content like Kobold Press. A 25% royalty on anything over $750,000 is a lot and basically means raising the prices of your books from $20 to $27 so you don’t end up losing money on the marginal sale.
If I had the kind of podcast that is theoretically an actual play podcast but where a bunch of improv actors joke about how infrequently they ever roll a die, I’d switch to a different system which would probably be a better fit mechanically. For instance, the obvious move for Dungeons and Daddies is to switch to PbtA or Gumshoe rather than negotiate a royalty with or risk being sued by Wizards. (I say negotiate as OGL 1.1 is only meant to cover books and PDFs with the implication that podcasts are among the things that would have to negotiate a license). Story gaming systems are better suited for podcasts than the relatively crunchy mechanics of D&D anyway.
There is a logic by which medium-sized publishers should adopt the new OGL, just to be safe from infringement litigation that could involve damages, but I’m not so sure. For instance, the OGL 1.1 would be very dangerous for Lamentations of the Flame Princess since OGL 1.1 also contains language to the effect of they can revoke your license if, in their opinion, your work is bigoted and a lot of the community (wrongly in my opinion) holds this opinion of that game. I don’t think Wizards is going to actively police content published under OGL 1.1 (sensitivity readers are, after all, an expense) but I think it’s likely that Wizards would pull the OGL 1.1 license from Lamentations under the slightest pressure and that it is a matter of metaphysical certainty that parts of the community would apply such pressure to the OGL 1.1 content guidelines given that they already do so to DriveThru and Free RPG Day. If I were Raggi, I would switch to publishing system neutral adventures before I’d sign the OGL 1.1.
The OSR retro-clones could be in trouble as they take quite a bit from the 3.5e SRD: the six attributes, spell names, monster names, magic item names, etc. This means trouble for the OSR. The issue is not so much losing access to the rules. B/X is available on DriveThru for cheaper than OSE and while OSE is better organized than B/X, it’s not that much better organized. The problem is it would be harder to publish new content based on those rules. In order for the OSR to really get network externalities, we need to choose a set of mechanics and all produce content for those mechanics. Currently that mechanical lingua franca is B/X, usually under the brand name OSE, but I’m looking at my copy of OSE and it has OGL 1.0a right in it. The second most popular standard in OSR is OD&D (usually branded as S&W), but I’m looking at my copies of S&W and WB:FMAG and both of them have OGL 1.0a in them. And the OSR started with the AD&D standard (branded as OSRIC), which also uses the OGL. So how do we publish new content for those rules? Even if it’s not that big a deal to rely on TSR B/X from DriveThru (or circulate samizdat copies of WB:FMAG), it just got harder to move Dolmenwood from the Patreon draft (which has, guess what, the OGL 1.0a in it) to the Kickstarter finished product many of us are looking forward to. And not just Dolmenwood but the next mega-dungeon, the next hexcrawl, etc.
However, this does not apply to anything like the same extent to NuSR games. Games like Mork Borg and Knave really don’t take anything but the loosest inspiration from D&D.. If I were an intellectual property lawyer, which I am not, I would much rather defend Maze Rats than OSRIC or OSE against a suit from Wizards. It’s easy for Ben Milton to say “you never needed the OGL” because he doesn’t use the SRD’s bestiary or spell list (and lacks the deep pockets to be worth suing). So one solution is for the OSR to migrate from retro-clones to NuSR mechanics, but which NuSR game would be the standard? There are a lot of NuSR games and if the community doesn’t choose one as the default, it will be hard to produce new content and see it circulate widely.
I expect one effect is we’ll see a lot of migration away from content written for retro-clones and towards alternative systems or system neutral material. This will work better for some things than others. Battle maps, dungeon maps, settings, and modules will all be 90% as good if written in a system neutral fashion and I expect we’ll see a lot of these materials written in that way. There are system neutral bestiaries but they generally come with stat blocks for a reason. So we will probably see a mix of system neutral stuff and NuSR stuff, with a snowball effect towards one NuSR game as the new lingua franca over several years.
[Update: one approach may be to publish most of the setting book or dungeon as system neutral with no license and then publish stat blocks and other crunch as a separate free PDF using a non-commercial OGL 1.1 license. This would obviously be inconvenient to both publisher and reader. It also would only work for setting/adventure, not mechanics. For instance, this could work OK-ish for Dolmenwood but not at all for Carcass Crawler.]
Rifts Atlantis for D&D and OSR
Rifts is a post-apocalyptic giant robots firing missiles at demons game, which isn’t exactly the kind of thing you think of for OSR or D&D, but Rifts: Atlantis is readily adaptable to the OSR. Atlantis has relatively little of the fascists and giant robots world-building that characterizes most of Rifts but rather is sword and planet with a hint of Lovecraft. That sort of thing seems anomalous from the high fantasy perspective that dominates D&D now, but it characterized a lot of the Appendix N literature and was a strong theme in old school D&D and OSR, from “Expedition to Barrier Peaks” to Hyperborea. The Rifts rules are pretty different from D&D so Atlantis is not exactly ready to run out of the box as OSR, but it has great potential as adaptation material for a major faction in your campaign world. I’ll first give a synopsis and then some ideas on adaptation.
The basic premise of Rifts: Atlantis is that an interdimensional alien confederation has established a territorial base for slave raids where they capture people and then sell them off in other dimensions, often after altering them with magical tattoos or magical parasites. The alien confederation are led by truly inhuman Lovecraft type entities, then about a dozen types of more or less humanoid aliens, and finally actual people at the bottom of the org chart. Much as real world empires are usually named for the numerically small nation at the top rather than the more numerous but diverse peoples they rule, the aliens are called the Slugorth even though only the handful of Lovecraft entities are actually Slugorth in the limited sense.
I wouldn’t adapt the setting wholesale in part because Atlantis in the game is huge; about the size of the continental United States. Rather I would make Atlantis the reasonably sized evil kingdom that threatens the rest of the region, like Iuz in Greyhawk. It can be on the mainland or an island, but should be hard to access and mysterious, known mostly from the raiding parties and trade caravans it sends out. Some of the provinces of Atlantis could be spun off as separate factions both geographically and politically distant from the inter-dimensional space slavers.
Although Rifts ultimately traces its mechanics to a fork of AD&D (the Palladium Fantasy RPG), the mechanics are so different that some conversion notes are required as the power curve for Rifts is ridiculously high.
Your first step should always be to see if you can treat a monster as a reskinned standard D&D or AD&D monster. For instance, the splugorth high lord could be an ogre mage / oni, the kydian an ogre, and the blind warrior women as 3rd level monks or fighters. Often the monsters will have bio-wizardry weapons (see below, but basically these are magic items).
MDC should be multiplied by 1/4 to get HP and any creature with MDC should have AC 3 .
For non-MDC creatures, take 1/10 of the sum of HP and SDC. AC should be 7-10 [10-13].
Any attack in MDC should do half that amount in hit points.
You’ll need to have OSR rules for energy weapons, which you can find in Carcass Crawler #2, Hyperborea, Mutant Crawl Classics, or Warriors of the Red Planet. For 5e, try the futuristic weapons entry in DMG. If you don’t have any of these, just treat an energy weapon as a wand of magic missiles, wand of lightning, or perhaps a wand of paralysis (set phasers to stun).
Divide attacks per round by 3 and round down.
Bio-wizardry is a key concept for the setting in which alien creatures are either bound into devices or surgically implanted into someone. When bound to a machine or device, bio-wizardry is grotesque color for magic items but can function as a wand or staff. You may need some game mechanic to keep players from using captured weapons too much, much as drow gear doesn’t work once exposed to sunlight. When bound to a person or monster, it generally is a buff with a cost, such as increasing strength and HP at the expense of charisma.
Tattooed Men get combatant buff spells (e.g., shield, shocking grasp, enlarge person) and summoning spells, but no divination, heavy artillery evocation, or the like. In flavor these spells are tattoos, but they’ll work well with Vancian mechanics. I suggest using elf race-as-class HD, XP, and spell slots.
Pyramids at ley line nexuses are a key concept in the game. Use the artifacts rules from the 1e or 2e DMG, but with the change that they can’t move and lack negative properties for their users.
I would simply cut much of the mecha but to the extent you keep them, consider apparatus of kwalish as a model. Something like the slaver barge can just be a large flying carpet.
Thieves’ Guild as Stationary Bandit
Among the most familiar tropes of D&D is the thieves’ guild, one of many ideas D&D inherited from Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. In a lot of D&D-related material (e.g., Gygax’s Saga of the Old City) you get the sense of the guild as, well, a guild, where apprentices train under master craftsmen to achieve journeyman status. At first glance this is a ridiculous concept, based on a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the sense that everything in the middle ages was based on guilds, so why not thieves. However on reading Anja Shortland’s Kidnap, I changed my mind and came to see a thieves’ guild as an institution that is both realistic and eminently gameable if you move away from the idea that they’re constantly picking pockets.
Kidnap is a great book and if you enjoy this post I highly recommend you read the whole thing. I read it as a social scientist and it’s a very good scholarly work. However non-academics who just want ideas for intrigue and adventure will find plenty of gameable hooks beyond what I’ve summarized and riffed on here. The central thesis of the book is that the kidnapping insurance markets and their associated negotiators at Lloyd’s of London are awesome and governments are a bunch of amateurs who mess things when they ban ransoms, pay ransoms much higher than is standard, or both. However, I want to focus on a secondary point in the book, which is the role of a “protector,” an issue heavily inspired by Olson’s stationary bandit model.
Kidnapping for ransom is difficult because it assumes you have a place to keep the hostage, a way to safely collect the ransom, can credibly commit to releasing the hostage and seeing them to safety, etc. All of that assumes a monopoly of force in a territory by a faction she abstractly refers to as a “protector.” This can be a state, a mafia, a rebel army, or a tribal clan. In fantasy, it would be a thieves’ guild in an urban setting and pirates, bandits, or some type of rogue state in a hexcrawl. The thing is, the protector doesn’t want to kidnap you. They want you to pay protection money against being kidnapped. Kidnapping for ransom as a direct revenue generating activity is for amateurs. Pros use kidnapping as an enforcement mechanism for extortion. In equilibrium (economist-speak for “when things settle down”), nobody will get kidnapped and everyone will pay protection money. And it’s not just kidnapping — an effective protector will keep those who pay protection money free from other types of criminal predation, and indeed, will use theft and vandalism as escalating enforcement tactics against those who refuse to pay protection. So you shouldn’t think of being in the thieves’ guild as like Oliver Twist making his quota of thefts for Fagin, but as like being a property tax assessor, but for the mob. A truly powerful thieves’ guild would hardly ever commit any thefts.
On the other hand, you will see lots of kidnappings when you are not in equilibrium and a criminal/rebel/whatever organization is contesting authority with either the state or with rival criminal/rebel/whatever organizations. If I, as a local burgher, don’t believe the thieves’ guild can kidnap me with impunity, I won’t pay them protection money, which means they actually have to do it to set an example. Likewise, if I’m getting shaken down by lots of criminals, I can’t pay protection to all of them and I may not want to pay protection to any of them if they can’t guarantee my safety from their rivals. All of this suggests that a protector organization will need to ruthlessly suppress not only rivals but also freelancers. Shortland quotes friends in Naples or Palermo who will say ironic but sensible things like “It’s perfectly safe here, it’s mafia territory.”
All of this suggests treating a thieves’ guild (or pirates or bandits or rebels) as a faction with lots of gameable hooks.
Rescue. The most obvious game hook is the player characters get sent to rescue an important NPC who has been kidnapped. This would make Shortland very upset as she stresses that real life kidnappers typically treat hostages well until there’s a rescue attempt, at which point they murder them. So the challenge for the player characters would be to treat the rescue as a stealth mission, which should be feasible with enough hide in shadows rolls and silence spells.
Revenge. An alternative to rescue is revenge. First you pay the ransom, and then you come back and slaughter the hostage takers. Plutarch recounts a story about Julius Caesar being kidnapped as a young man, paying an ample ransom, and then returning with a bunch of dudes to crucify the pirates who kidnapped him. The player characters can be that bunch of dudes sent on a punitive expedition.
Bag man and negotiator. Shortland has great admiration for the ex-special forces bad asses who work as consultants for Lloyd’s insurance companies to actually handle ransoms. These guys are total player-characters, but they’re mostly player-characters in a story game even if they used to play in an action-based game. You need some bad asses to handle the negotiation and to deliver the ransom without it being intercepted by rival criminals. Your PCs could take on this task and finally use those language skills they have in speaking goblin.
Punish rivals and freelancers. If rival gangs or freelancers start doing kidnappings, thefts, etc, this is bad for the protection business. The thieves guild needs to put down any threats to a monopoly on miscreancy. The player characters can serve as enforcers for this purpose, most obviously if they are gritty cutthroat members of the guild, but this plot hook can work even if the party is entirely lawful good paladins. “The brotherhood recognizes that you don’t approve of our line of work but we live by rules and we have a common interest in punishing the animals who kidnapped that child and sent her ears back with the ransom letter. That kind of behavior is not just despicable, it’s bad for business, and someone needs to make these desperados disappear.”
Freelancers. The PCs themselves could easily be seen as freelancers in need of guild discipline. The PCs probably aren’t going to get into the kidnapping and extortion business themselves, but the thieves’ guild might take an expansive view of what activities they claim as jurisdiction. Just as mafias tend to shake down pimps, pushers, and thieves in real life, in a fantasy campaign, murder hobos might be expected to pay a hefty tribute to the guild. (If you really want to make this painful in an OSR game, make any treasure paid as tribute not count for XP). Alternately, the PCs could be minding their own business doing murder hobo stuff and learn after the fact that the snake cult whose tower they just sacked had itself been paying protection to the thieves’ guild and so the adventurers’ quarter is now a distinctly unsafe place to be.